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Transcript of NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ call with reporters

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NASCAR President Steve Phelps spoke with reporters for about 20 minutes Tuesday, the first time he’s spoken to reporters since last weekend’s races at Atlanta Motor Speedway were postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. All NASCAR races are postponed through the the May 3 Cup race at Dover International Speedway. No makeup dates have been announced.

Here is a transcript of the Tuesday’s teleconference:

              THE MODERATOR:  Welcome, everyone, to today’s media teleconference here with NASCAR president Steve Phelps.  We appreciate you all making the time.  We also realize that you have a number of questions for Steve here today.  We’re going to try to get through as many questions as we have for this teleconference.  We’re planning to set aside 20 minutes, a lot of activity going on here as you might imagine.

With that said, I’ll turn it over to NASCAR’s president Steve Phelps.

STEVE PHELPS:  Thanks, guys.  Appreciate you joining us today.  I’ll just make a quick opening statement as I typically do, then open it up for questions.

I want to thank you for joining us today.  We know you have a number of questions, and we appreciate your patience as we work through what is an incredibly fluid process as I’m sure you can appreciate.

Hopefully we can answer a bunch of your questions, but understand there are many more that we simply do not have answers for at this time.  We’re navigating this process with the entire industry and look forward to providing further details when they are finalized.

We’re working through both the complexity of our sport and our many industry stakeholders as well as the complexity of this pandemic and its impact on our daily lives.

I would like to express my gratitude to you the media, our teams, our drivers, the racetracks and everyone in the industry for their incredible patience and cooperation over the past week.

These clearly are unprecedented times with information changing by the hour.  Collectively our industry has made several difficult decisions, all with one thought in mind:  the health and safety of our fans, our competitors, employees and everyone in the industry.

The situation we are facing transcends the world of sports.  What is most important now is we take precautions to keep everyone as safe as possible during these challenging times.

With that, I’m happy to answer questions.

 

            Q.  When you look at trying to figure out the remaining 2020 schedule, are you looking at midweek races, doubleheaders, racing during the Olympic break?  What are the options?

STEVE PHELPS:  Most importantly we intend to race all our 36 points races as well as the All‑Star event.  What those look like at this particular point we’re looking broadly about what our options are.

At this particular point we would like to finish the season at Phoenix and keep the Playoff portion intact.  With that said, it will require a lot of different opportunities for us to look at.  We’re in the process of doing that.

No specifics around midweek races.  I’ve heard about doubleheaders, different things.  At this particular point a lot of things on the table for us to look at, working with our race teams, working with our racetracks to make sure the things that we’re putting on the table are feasible for us to do.

 

            Q.  About the teams, certainly there’s some questions with the sport being shut down for a couple months about finances.  Is there a way, for lack of a better term, a subsidy for teams in any of the national series, in essence like a parent giving a child an advance on allowance to help teams move along?  Has anything been discussed about helping teams financially through the next couple months?

STEVE PHELPS:  I think what I would say there, no specifics around subsidies or anything of that nature.  We are working with our teams closely to have them industry wide make sure we are all financially viable moving forward during this postponement of our races.

 

            Q.  How do you envision going about the process of deciding the start back of the season?  Is it possible that you could start back with events that do not have fans or do you anticipate waiting to start back when you can start back on a regular race weekend?

STEVE PHELPS:  That’s a good question.  I think the way we view this is kind of how we view Atlanta, which is we need to make sure that we are keeping our competitors and those that are at the racetracks, our race teams, our officials, we need to have the health of those folks paramount for us.

Would we consider racing without fans at some point the to get back racing more quickly without fans?  That’s in the consideration set.  I don’t know.  It’s changing so rapidly, what it means for mass gatherings, what’s that number.

Again, we’ll work with our health officials.  We’re working with a number of infectious disease professionals that are going to help us through what that looks like and whether it makes sense for us to race without fans or have our first race be back with fans.

 

            Q.  Earlier today there was a bulletin about the banning of testing except for the Next Gen related car issues.  At this time do you anticipate there could be any postponement to the next generation debut of next season or is it too early to tell?

STEVE PHELPS:  I think it’s just too early to tell.  We are working diligently to try to stay on schedule.  There continues to be barriers that are put in front of us.  We will have to adapt to those as they come.

 

            Q.  A lot of times when we talk to the fans, people will throw ideas out, kind of come up with things that may not be physically possible or might not understand what you have to do in order to get okays to do things.  How much of what is mandated or required by the networks, what are the obstacles generically to try to put this schedule back together?

STEVE PHELPS:  That’s a good question.

We are working with our media partners, with FOX, with NBC.  If you kind of consider what is going to happen, we’re in this period right now where the major sports are shut down from participating.  At some point soon we hope to all get back to finding that escape that our fans are all looking for, in our case getting back to racing.

We are working with FOX and with NBC to understand what windows might be available.  That will come as we develop this schedule.  It is complex, for sure.  But both partners have shown great willingness to try to work with us, obviously we with the other sports to find windows to get back to racing in our case.

 

            Q.  The fact that lots of sports will come all of a sudden, every sport will be back at it, does that make it really tough?  With the two‑week period off for the Olympics, will that be open to you?  Would the network require that you not do that?

STEVE PHELPS:  I would say, again, nothing has been decided at this particular point with respect to those two weeks.  Will it be a crowded landscape, television landscape, with a lot of different sports on?  Yes, it’s going to be.

I think, again, we’ll work with our television partners to find the appropriate windows so we can get back racing and make sure our fans get the opportunity to see that racing.

 

            Q.  Could you give us some insight into how much NASCAR looked at the landscape of what other sports were doing in terms of postponements and cancellations?  If so, how much did what those specific entities’ did play into your decisions with the announcement of no fans and the postponement of the season?

STEVE PHELPS:  We have a lens to what other folks are doing.  But we needed to look through our own lens of what was going to make the most sense for our fans, then ultimately for our competitors, the folks that work on the race teams, our own employees, our own officials.

Do we have an understanding that these things were happening with other sports?  Of course.  But we need to look at it as it relates to our specific facilities.  The first example being Atlanta, then Homestead‑Miami.  That’s what we looked at.

We tried to run it without fans, then made a determination that, you know what, it’s probably not in the best interest to do that, which is why we postponed those two events.

 

            Q.  Can you prioritize what you are looking for when trying to reschedule races?  Midweek races might be more of a hassle for teams, that versus doubleheaders, if fans are in a venue that has two race, they may prefer to go to the track twice separate times rather than two races over the same weekend?

STEVE PHELPS:  I wouldn’t say ‘prioritizing’ as much as we have to look at it based on so many different variables, so many different factors that will come into play.

I wouldn’t say it’s a prioritization.  It’s understanding what is available to us.  It’s understanding the races that we’ve had to postpone and what is the best way to get them fit back into a schedule.

We’ll take a holistic view of what it is, not specifically how are we going to prioritize one versus another.

 

            Q.  How much are you working on potentially having to postpone more races and/or how confident are your experts telling you you should be able to be back racing by early May?

STEVE PHELPS:  I think for us, we’re concentrating on getting back to racing at Martinsville.  We’ll have to do scenario planning that will look different than that.  Right now our priority is to get back to racing at Martinsville.

 

            Q.  On subsidies for the team, Roger Penske assured IndyCar team owners they’re going to get their first payment of their Leader Circles money.  NASCAR teams are worried about making payroll, they don’t know if sponsors are going to ask for money back, what kind of force majeure is going to come into play.  Is NASCAR concerned that teams are going to go out of business during this time?

STEVE PHELPS:  No specifics around the financials about what will happen with our race teams and how we’re going to work with our race teams at this time.

Are we concerned about teams broadly and their financial health?  Of course we are.  We want to make sure that each of our teams gets through this, each of our stakeholders in the industry gets through this crisis as well as we all can.

Lots of things on the table.  No specifics at this point that we are prepared to discuss.  Financially we need to make sure that our financials are handled with obviously the stakeholders separately, make sure that we are all aligned with what that’s going to look like.

As of right now, nothing to share.

 

            Q.  You have all these elements in play.  One of those of course is the sponsors.  Obviously some sponsorship went out the window with the individual race sponsorships.  What message are you talking to sponsors about?  Some of those sponsorships may have been geared for a certain time period that’s not going to happen now.  Is that going to be on an individual basis?  Is there a broad mandate towards those sponsors?

STEVE PHELPS:  I think from a sponsor standpoint, each of the sponsors is different, what their needs, wants and desires are, what it says contractually.

No real broad overview or a way to think about where things are with sponsors broadly.  We’ll handle those on an individual basis.

The racetracks that are not our racetracks, they’ll do the same thing.  The race teams and their sponsors will do the same thing.  Nothing specific at this particular point.

We’re looking broadly.  When we talk about stakeholders, sponsors are a huge portion of who those stakeholders are.  We need to make sure we’re adapting smartly with what we’re doing with our sponsor partners and the industry broadly.

 

            Q.  Take us through the decision‑making process last Friday at Atlanta.  It seemed like there was some mixed messaging coming out.  First we heard there was going to be condensed racing, then that changed.  Did it change that quickly?  Was there one thing or something that made it change from we’re going to race this weekend condensed schedule without fans to we’re not going to race at all for the next two races?

STEVE PHELPS:  Obviously it was a very fluid situation.  I will say this:  the industry, the teams, the track, in this case Atlanta Motor Speedway, was everyone working together to try to come to what was going to be the right decision for us and our fans, then us and the safety of our crew and personnel.  It was fluid.

It did change.  We were prepared first run on Sunday, then we were going to pull it to Saturday.  It was decided quickly that we would make a change and postpone both the Atlanta race as well as the Homestead‑Miami race.

 

            Q.  What is the primary motivation and objective behind wanting to make sure that you’re postponing the races and running them later rather than canceling them in some scenarios?

STEVE PHELPS:  Probably depends on who you ask about this.  For us, we have a commitment to our fans that we’re going to run all the races.  We have a commitment to all our competitors that we run all the races.  We have a commitment to the stakeholders broadly that we’re going to run all the races.

We are going to do everything in our power to get these races in.  If there are other variables that happen that would suggest we can’t do that, we’ll look at those at that time.

 

            Q.  Four of the seven tracks that you have postponed, they also have races in the Playoffs.  Is it your wish that the 10‑race Playoff system not be tinkered with, that you would not want to run a doubleheader for any of those four tracks that have races both outside and inside the Playoffs?

STEVE PHELPS:  I would say the answer to that is yes, we are interested in getting these postponed races done prior to our Playoff starting, so not running doubleheaders in those races that have been postponed during the Playoffs.  That is the goal that we’re working towards right now.

Again, if there are other variables that change in the future, we’ll adapt to those as well.

 

            Q.  NASCAR already has so much going on for next year between rolling out a new car and revamping the ’21 schedule.  Now you have this to deal with for 2020.  Are you punting right now on everything for next year?  I presume the timing couldn’t be worse.  With everything you already had on your plate for next year, how much more challenging does it make it?

STEVE PHELPS:  Trying to be as honest as possible.  This is not easy, right?  It’s not easy on anyone who works in this industry.  It’s hard.  We’re not the only ones this is hard on, right?

You have people who are contracting this illness.  You have people who are sadly dying from this virus.  We’re trying to keep it all in perspective with what it is that we do.

To your point, we are still pushing forward right now with the Next Gen car.  We are still pushing forward with changes to our schedule.  We’re trying to do it as smartly as we can.

The variables keep changing, right?  The hurdles keep being put in front of this industry, and this industry keeps jumping over them, then there’s another, it jumps over that, then another and another.

It’s not an easy situation for sure, but it’s one that this industry is managing together.  Really proud of how this industry has come together to try to support each other and to try to get through this as best we can.

Again, it’s a difficult situation.

 

            Q.  How much is NASCAR intending to rely on iRacing and pivoting to other means of entertainment for the NASCAR fans during the postponement?  Where are you intending to direct fans to and how much are you going to rely on iRacing?

STEVE PHELPS:  I think in general we are interested in trying to satisfy our fans with different content, whether that’s through Esports, iRacing.  Tonight, for example, we have a NASCAR Coca‑Cola iRacing Series event at 9 p.m. on ENASCAR.com.  Thank you for that plug.

But there are other things, too.  There are discussions we’re having with FOX about what things we can do, discussions we would have with NBC, things that we can put through our own channels that satisfy our fans.

Our fans are obviously thirsty for this content.  We want to provide it to them smartly and have interesting content as opposed to just repurposing some of the content that’s already been done.

More to come on that.  We want to make sure we’re servicing the fans as best we can.

THE MODERATOR:  Thank you, everybody, for making the time to jump on this.  I realize there were a number of you that had additional questions.  It was important that we made Steve available to answer at least some of your questions.  As you probably would imagine we have a lot going on here.  We’re doing contingency planning.  Anything with follow‑up, bring it to my attention and we’ll see what we can do.  Thank you.

STEVE PHELPS:  Thanks for your time, everyone.

 

Can Adam Stevens, Kyle Busch ‘get mojo back’ at Bristol?

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Kyle Busch is known for speaking his mind. He says what he has to say whether things are good, bad, successful or frustrating.

That kind of attitude has rubbed off somewhat on his crew chief, Adam Stevens.

After Busch finished a disappointing 29th in Thursday’s fourth Cup race in 12 days, dropping Busch from 8th to 12th in the standings, Stevens was asked in a Friday teleconference where he would assess the progress of the No. 18 team since returning from the COVID-19 hiatus.

Like his driver, Stevens didn’t beat around the bush – no pun intended.

“Overall, it’s been a disappointing start, I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Stevens said. “You have stretches like that and I think we need to get our program a little better and then internally as a team we have to do better.”

In the four post-hiatus races, Busch finished 26th at Darlington, accidentally knocked Chase Elliott into the wall to finish second in the return trip to the Lady In Black, was fourth in the Coca-Cola 600, and then things just fell apart in Thursday’s race, his 29th-place finish being the second-worst finish this season (worst was 34th in the Daytona 500).

“In general, I would say we’re not as competitive as we’d want to be,” Stevens said. “We haven’t executed like we’ve wanted to.

“We’ve managed to get a couple good finishes in there, managed to get a couple poor finishes – the poor finishes were probably more poor than what they needed to be because of mistakes or circumstances we fell into during the race.”

A potential part of the problem with the No. 18 team – it’s a likely problem for most teams that have struggled since the return to racing – has been fatigue.

By the time Sunday’s race at Bristol is over, that will make five Cup races in 15 days. Plus, wih limitations on personnel numbers both at-track and at the JGR shop due to the pandemic, fatigue is apparent.

But after Sunday’s race, NASCAR Cup teams get a luxury of sorts: no midweek races this coming week and a chance for everyone to collectively catch their breath and rest up for nearly a week until the next race on June 7 at Atlanta.

“There’s quite a few of my crew guys who have been worn out here and spread pretty thin,” Stevens said. “They could really use a day or two off for sure, and they’re going to get that early in the week.

“We have a race in Atlanta with no practice, so the prep is down, but no midweek race … will make it a lot more palatable next week. Next week will probably be a week to get caught back up and assess where we’re at and maybe do a little bit more leg work on some of the future races so we can be a little bit more ahead. For certain there’s a large group of guys who need a day off.”

Sunday’s 500-lap race at Bristol offers a chance at redemption — if not a kind of home track advantage — for Busch and Stevens. In 29 Cup starts there, Busch has eight wins — including three in his last five starts there — plus 12 top-5 and 17 top-10 finishes.

If there ever was a place to right the listing No. 18 ship, the world’s fastest half-mile may just be the place.

“What makes Kyle (Busch) good at Bristol doesn’t change,” Stevens said. “He’s just so good at adapting what he’s doing behind the wheel to suit how the track is changing. Hopefully he’ll get to showcase more of that this weekend.

“It’s the track and the nuances of the track and how that changes and the fact that it changes is what makes KB shine there. He can make time on the bottom, in the PJ1, he can make time around the top when that’s the place to be and he’s not scared to move around and really is exceptional at getting through the lapped traffic as well.

“If you had to circle a place to get your mojo back, this would probably be it.”

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Forget practice, qualifying, ‘I just like to race’

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In the new normal of NASCAR, there are a lot of things drivers are getting used to.

From health screens when they get to the track to carrying their own helmets and other chores that previously were done by assistants, drivers are adapting.

One thing that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. likes is how, with the exception of one qualifying session for the Coca-Cola 600, that the first four Cup races back since the COVID-19 hiatus have not had practice or qualifying.

Stenhouse, to paraphrase late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, wants to “just race, baby, just race.”

Even though NASCAR’s race-only policy is predicated upon keeping things simple and staying safe in the pandemic, Stenhouse definitely has embraced the mindset of climbing in the car, firing the motor up and slamming on the gas pedal. No warm-ups, no testing different setups, no nothing. He just wants to chase the checkered flag.

“I just like to race, I like to be in the race car,” Stenhouse said in a media teleconference Friday. “Practice and qualifying doesn’t do it for me as much as getting out and competing in the race, as (opposed to being) in the car on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“Really there’s nothing like going out and racing. I enjoy racing as much as possible.”

Stenhouse, who finished fourth in Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, has also enjoyed NASCAR holding two of its first four Cup races back since the coronavirus hiatus in mid-week and prime time.

While that type of schedule makes it difficult and even grueling for crew chiefs and the rest of the team, count Stenhouse as hoping NASCAR moves forward with more mid-week races next season and beyond once coronavirus and the limitations it has placed upon the sport are gone.

“I like the Sunday-Wednesday schedules; I wish we could kind of keep doing that,” he said. “I’ve never been a fan of shortening the season because I just like to race.

“I’m going to try and sprinkle some more dirt races in when I can, if NASCAR lets me (he laughs). For me, I enjoy the racing aspect of it. I love being in the race car as much as possible. Like probably the other crew chiefs said, the guys at the shop definitely have a lot more work as far as getting cars ready week in and week out.

“So, that’s always been probably the biggest question mark of running these mid-week races to catch up our schedule is the toll that it’s taking on the crew guys. But it’s all been well received, they enjoy it and they love us back racing.”

In his first season with JTG-Daugherty Racing, Stenhouse has admittedly struggled. In the first eight races, the driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet has just two top-five finishes: Thursday night and third at Las Vegas.

Every other finish has been 20th or lower.

But Stenhouse sees light at the end of the tunnel. Ever since NASCAR returned from the pandemic hiatus, Stenhouse has seen improvement within his team that may not necessarily be reflected in the final result, but he definitely likes what he’s seeing from his team and the performance of his race car.

“Looking at the equipment that they have here, the people, the parts and pieces, the Hendrick power, the new Chevy Camaro body – I feel like those are all really good things to put together,” Stenhouse said. “Bringing my crew chief Brian Pattie over, bringing Mike Kelley over, with a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience to work in, they jumped right in. I felt like they’ve been working with these guys for a long time and it’s only been a short amount of time.

“So, I feel like we are definitely capable of running in the top 10. I feel like last night was definitely a night that we hit it right. We had a really good car and I hope we can continue to run top five and contend for wins.

“But I definitely feel like we can run top 10 with everything that we have right here. We have to do that – we have to limit my mistakes, limit the issues that we’ve had and just have good, smooth, solid nights, and I think we can run top-ten.

“I told the boys that we needed a good run going into Bristol, my favorite race track, knowing that I really like the way these cars drive. And if it drives as good at Bristol as it has at these other race tracks, I feel like we’re going to have a shot at a win. I wanted a good solid top-15 run, no issues, no mistakes and it turned out to be way better than that. So, we’re looking forward to hopefully carrying that momentum into Sunday.”

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Starting lineup for Sunday afternoon’s Cup race at Bristol

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Brad Keselowski and Aric Almirola will lead the field to the green flag in Sunday’s Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Keselowski will start first and Almirola will start second.

The top five is completed by Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr., putting all three of Team Penske’s cars in the top five.

The field was determined through a random draw of the following groups:

  • Positions 1-12: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 13-24: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 25-36: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 37-40: Open teams in order of owners points

Click here for the starting lineup.

NASCAR Cup Series at Bristol

Race Time: 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Track: Bristol Motor Speedway; Bristol, Tennessee (half-mile oval)

Length: 500 laps, 266.5 miles

Stages: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Xfinity race: June 1 at Bristol (300 laps, 159.9 miles), 7 p.m. ET on FS1

Next Truck Series race: June 6 at Atlanta (130 laps, 200.02 miles), 1 p.m. ET on FS1

Chase Elliott ‘Sent it, for Judd’ in Charlotte Cup Series win

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A rollercoaster week for Chase Elliott ended Thursday night with him in Victory Lane for the second time in three days and for the first time this year in the Cup Series.

But Elliott’s win at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the seventh Cup victory of his career, had additional weight for the Hendrick Motorsports driver. Not long after the race, Elliott posted a picture on Instagram of him celebrating on the frontstretch. At the bottom of the picture was a drawing of a character saying “send it.”

A sticker of that figure, which is a walrus, is located on the front bumper of Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet.

“Sent it, for Judd,” Elliott wrote in the Instagram post. “This ones for you brother, miss you my friend. That sticker will forever stay on the front of that 9 car, I promise y’all that.”

On Friday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. asked Elliott on NASCAR America at Home the meaning behind the sticker.

“Judd (Plott) was my best friend since I was a kid, he and I grew up together,” Elliott said. “His mom sang at my parent’s wedding and just my best friend since I can remember. Lost him last fall. That sticker is kind of remembrance of him. He had a tattoo on his leg of that little walrus and that was kind of his little logo.

“So I had a friend make up some stickers last fall after (Judd passed), and I just thought it’d be really cool to carry that moving forward. He was my best friend as long as I can remember and just always supportive and just felt like it’d be special to carry that for the rest of my career and always remember him and he was one of a kind and he was a genuinely good dude.”

The walrus decal and its placement on Elliott’s bumper is similar to one that can be found on the bumper of Jimmie Johnson’s car. It’s dedicated to his friend Blaise Alexander, an ARCA driver who was killed in a crash at Charlotte in 2001, and the 10 people who were killed in a Hendrick Motorsports plane crash in 2004.

The walrus decal isn’t the first time Elliott’s honored his late friend. Last November, he had a tribute to Judd on his nameplate above the driver-side window.

Following Thursday’s race, the Cup Series next competes Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway. Like the previous four races, it will be a one-day show. Elliott shared his thoughts on how a limited at-track schedule and condensed crew rosters are bringing the No. 9 team together.

“It’s brought an excitement back to it that I haven’t had in a little while, from the standpoint of I feel like I’m short-track racing again,” Elliott said. “I feel like it’s brought our team closer together because different guys on our team are having to do more jobs. Like (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson is) having to come off the box and catch tires during the pitstop. And that’s brought him closer to our pit crew. I’m having a couple more items to do and keep up with than what I had before and I think all that is bringing us closer together. And for me, it’s just been a lot of fun kind of condensing the group and doing more racing and less sitting around.”

The one-day show at Bristol has an added element to it. Without any prior track activity before Sunday’s green flag, the traction compound added to the lower lanes in the turns will be more difficult for drivers to navigate.

Elliott thinks it’s been “overlooked a little bit.”

“(The traction compound) does not like to be run on until it gets run in and those are two things that don’t go good together, right?” Elliott said. “Because it doesn’t have grip and nobody wants to run on it. But we all want it at the same time because we want another option. What I’ve noticed is it seems like it takes the leaders catching lap cars and forcing cars into a position that they don’t want to be in to start to run that stuff in. Until it gets run in, it’s really hard. It’s really slick. And I think that’s probably the biggest thing is just, you know, marrying up all those things, right? Do we have the splitter height, right? How slick is that stuff going to be? How long is it going to take it to come in. And when it does come in how long until it wears out and the top becomes the advantage because it typically does by the end of a race.

“But we typically have a full weekend to practice and qualifying and a Xfinity race. And a lot of times we don’t see that top line come dominant until late in the Cup race on Sunday. So I’m really curious to see how all those things play out.”